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Birth Local’s last stand nets one ‘no’ vote on finalizing hospital financing

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As WMH President Floyd Heater, flanked by two Valley Health officials listens, ‘Birth Local’ co-founder Melanie Salins reiterates criticism of perceived profit over community health criteria for new hospital plan. Photos/Roger Bianchini

On Monday evening, June 11, by a 3-1 vote, two absent, the Front Royal Town Council made it a clean sweep of the municipal support necessary to enable a $60-million bond issue to help finance construction of a new Warren Memorial Hospital.

However, with two councilmen absent (Morrison and Gillespie) and one Valley Health employee (Meza) having recused himself from past re-zoning votes to facilitate construction of a new Valley Health hospital in Front Royal, it appeared the scheduled council vote endorsing the bond issue through the local Economic Development Authority might not achieve a voting quorum.

But shortly after “Birth Local” co-founder Melanie Salins congratulated Meza on his past recusals while criticizing a trio of EDA board members (Llewellyn, Baker and Pattison) for not recusing themselves despite their membership on a hospital advisory board, Meza pulled a rabbit – I mean his vote – out of his hat (well, he didn’t have a hat, that is just a magic act metaphor).

On Feb. 28, ‘Birth Local’ supporters made their case against closing the community’s birthing, OB-GYN unit at WMH. That Valley Health decision went into effect with the May 1 closing of the existing hospital’s maternity unit.

Meza explained that it was the opinion of town legal staff that as long as he disclosed his Valley Health employment ties that since what was being voted on did not directly impact hospital operations, but rather the legitimacy of the bond issue through the Front Royal-Warren County EDA, he could legally vote on the matter.  Meza elaborated that despite his employment ties to the parent company of the hospital he believed he could vote “fairly and objectively”.

That vote was “yes” in endorsing a resolution of support of the “up to $60-million” bond issue, bringing the margin to 3-1 for approval of the financing through the EDA bond issue.  Joining Meza in the “yes” column were Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt and Councilman William Sealock.

John Connolly drew applause from “Birth Local” opponents of Valley Health’s decision not to include a birthing, OB-GYN unit in the hospital when he said, “I will not give my endorsement to a downgrade of our hospital services.”

Steven Schlesinger’s negative portrayal of Valley Health’s decision-making process on what units will be included in the new hospital even got grins from a certain county administrator and if I’m not mistaken, two Valley Health officials.

That perceived downgrading revolves around the ongoing lack of resolution on some sort of a compromise to maintain OB-GYN birthing services in the county pending Valley Health’s potential decision to add them to their new facility at some indeterminate future point.  Valley Health points to low birthing numbers at the existing WMH – about 330 a year – and the decision of a number of county women to already go to its Winchester Medical Center or points east for their decision to not include a birthing unit in the new hospital plan.  They stress there will be room to add a birthing unit once the numbers justify it.

Four people spoke during the public concerns portion of the meeting urging council to take this last opportunity to delay what amounts to final approval of the estimated $97-million hospital construction project.  That project envisions a three-story, 175,000 square-foot, 36-bed private room “general acute care hospital” on a 150-acre campus, just south of Warren County Middle School on Leach Run Parkway.

What it doesn’t envision is a birthing unit, and according to “Birth Local” co-founder Salins,  an Intensive Care Unit either.  Salins was the first of the “Birth Local” contingent to speak, and the first of four to continue to increasingly portray Valley Health as a somewhat callous bottom line above public health concerns “non-profit” entity.

Perhaps the most colorful negative portrayal came from Steven Schlesinger, who observed, “I have been billed by Valley Health – I know loan sharks who are nicer.”

Others criticism were just as scathing.

Valley Health critics Melanie Salins and Amber Poe Morris chat with Valley Health employee/Councilman Jacob Meza following Monday’s meeting.

Pointing to a recent premature birth crisis situation and estimating the number of those averaged per year locally, Salins asked of what is already a community without a birthing center after Valley Health’s May 1 closing of the existing hospital’s maternity ward, “How long before the luck runs out and there is a loss of life?”

Lifelong community resident Amber Poe Morris acknowledged a request for an interview by a metro-area TV station in the wake of a 2011 emergency Caesarian delivery at Warren Memorial Hospital due to a high statistical number of birth-related health issues there.

As for promised “good faith” negotiations on a compromise solution, perhaps involving a third party provider, Katie Kerns said that Valley Health officials, “did not listen to any of our concerns – even mocking them.”

If town officials claimed they were locked in by state law to approve the rezoning, no such legal claim was put forth for the bond approval, Salins pointed out – “This is your chance, you can vote this down, you can delay this vote … and send a message that your priority is with the safety of this community and not with their profits.”

But in the end it was the specter of a less than perfect future hospital with room to add services at an indeterminate future point that prevailed over the potential of driving Valley Health and a new hospital away.

And for some reason, first the town attorney, at the instruction of the mayor at the meeting’s outset, then Councilman Sealock prior to the vote explained at some length what had already been widely reported in the local media – that neither the town or county government, nor their EDA through which the bond will be issued, are liable in any way for repayment or funding of the bond.

Prior to the hospital bond fireworks, FRPD Chief Kahle Magalis, Major Nicewarner and Captains Ryman and  Cline welcomed new Officer Travis Lehman to the force. Lehman was officially ‘badged’ by his fiancé.

As Royal Examiner reported of County and EDA bond counsel Dan Siegel’s explanation prior to the June 1 EDA board vote of approval, which was reiterated by county officials before the board of supervisors’ vote of approval on June 5, “neither the county or town governments, nor their EDA are accepting any financial obligation for repayment of the bond; nor would they incur any penalty were the bond not to be issued ‘for any reason’…”

And as stressed prior to the EDA vote, the hospital as borrower will also pay a fee of $240,000 to the EDA upon issuance of the bond, as well as cover any EDA costs associated to the bond issue.  However, one website comment to Royal Examiner’s story on the earlier approvals from  retired certified public account Kenneth Johnson  wondered at how that fee measures up against the amount of money Valley Health stands to save by way of the municipally-assisted bond issue.

No one addressed that question or those numbers on Monday night.

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